On Abby Chen’s website, a pair of illustrated googly eyes follow the path of your mouse as you explore the page. They watch as you click around her selected works: interactive projects for Gallagher & Associates, where Chen is a visual designer; video and poster work during her stint at Google Creative Lab; a bilingual typographic system she worked on with Project Projects; editorial design for New York Times Magazine, where she was previously an intern. It’s an impressive list of projects—polished, curated, indicative of a range of skills across various media. And then, up in the right hand corner, there’s an option to view the “B-Sides.”
“The B-side [of my website] is more personal experiments, where I’m learning about coding and showing the happy accidents that happen throughout the design process,” says the China-born, New York City-based graphic designer. “I want people to get a sense of the type of work that I do and get insights into my design process.”
For Chen, process is the most interesting part of a design practice, and consistently learning new technology, working in new media, and finding inventive new ways to use creative tools has become an important through-line in her career. Since graduating from Parsons School of Design in 2014, she’s continued to pursue an interest in interaction design, exploring the ways that visual design can impact behavior and interaction in exhibition design, cultural projects, and campaigns for social issues. On the side of her full-time job at Gallagher, she maintains a steady stream of personal and freelance projects in that vein—her B-side projects always informing that client-facing, A-side work.
Chen became interested in interaction design while getting her BFA at Parson’s, where she was required to take an interaction design course as part of the core curriculum for communication design. She ended up taking another her junior year, and studied under Caspar Lam and YuJune Park of Synoptic Office in a course called Translations, focused on translating the analog to digital, and vice versa. “Learning code and digital design has always fascinated me, even if I never thought I would end up pursuing it [in a professional sense],” she says.
Those skills ended up coming in handy when she landed a job at Gallagher a year after graduating. The firm specializes in museum planning and design, and Chen’s role as a visual designer has her working hand in hand with UX and exhibition designers, developers, and business strategists. Having experience with code and speaking the language of digital design is a significant boon when it comes to designing the visuals for interactive experiences. For the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California, near San Francisco, Chen and her colleagues designed digital kiosks that give historical context to the museum’s 19th and 20th century European and American art collection. For the Armenian Genocide Museum of America, they created a three-part visual story about the history and enduring consequences of the atrocity.
“For me, the more I do different types of work—the more I work with space and with technology—it makes me aware how minor design decisions affect people’s reactions,” she says. “It’s the process that I care about most, and feel most satisfied thinking about and doing. I like exploring different types of tools and making different design decisions at every turn.”
Exploring various tools can also mean going traditional, as it did with It’s Not Just Personal, a fold-out guide to the rights of survivors of sexual violence that’s distributed on college campuses across the U.S. The project came about after a visiting critic to Parson’s recommended that Chen look into the non-profit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), based on her thesis project about the spread of disinformation in Chinese news media. CUP’s Making Policy Public initiative connects designers with advocacy organizations to help break down complex policy into understandable guides.
Chen applied to the program with her friend and collaborator Flora Chan, and the pair was matched up with a group called Black Women’s Blueprint. Together they created a vibrant illustrated pamphlet that folds out into a poster, and unpacks the legal options and resources provided by Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act, targeted specifically to students of color and LGBTQ students.
“We looked at some flyers and material designed about sexual assault, and the traditional visual language is always sad,” with photography and imagery that reflects the trauma of the situation, says Chen. By contrast, she and Chan wanted their flyer to imbue the reader with a sense of agency, and convey that, armed with the correct resources, survivors have options and the potential for a sense of control. They also knew that if the fold-outs were going to be distributed across college campuses they needed to speak visually to that demographic or they’d never get picked up. “We had testing sessions with one of the schools here in Brooklyn where students responded to the piece and how it represents them,” says Chen. “That was the feedback that was particularly meaningful. How do we accurately represent diversity of people in their community?”
Though a side project, It’s Not Just Personal leads Chen’s A-side section on her site, an indicator of the socially minded work she prizes alongside projects that experiment with new technologies and how graphic design can enhance our experience with them. The key for Chen is a continued sense of discovery: “What I’m looking for as a designer is to be fluid in terms of the discipline and media that I want to work in.”